Cathy Ace is always thinking about great ways to kill someone. Fortunately, she’s a crime writer, not a psychopath.
“It’s nice to be able to look out of the window and see the sun,” Cathy Ace says. We are chatting by phone; she is in her Maple Ridge, BC home-office, and I in my own writing room in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Cathy admits that the rain, never-ending this spring on the West Coast, was good for her productivity. She’s working on a draft of The Corpse with the Golden Nose, her second novel for TouchWood Editions. Her first, The Corpse with the Silver Tongue, was released in March.
I’ve called Cathy to conduct an inaugural interview to discuss what I’m calling Process Stories: how writers exercise their craft.
“I’m not someone who has ever spent time studying the writing process itself. I don’t know how it happens for other writers, but I’m fascinated by it,” she confesses. Cathy and I shared an audience, along with fellow TouchWood author Debra Purdy Kong, in April. I was reading from The Vanishing Track, and after our ephemerally brief readings, someone asked about the writing procedure.
Cathy admitted that her first novel emerged fully formed on the page. She said it was as if she watched a movie playing in her head and wrote as fast as she could to get the story down as the film unwound behind her eyes.
“I’m not convinced that it’s unusual; it’s just the way I write. Perhaps it’s not normal for everyone; I’m learning that other people are different, that there are umpteen drafts.”
That would be me. Half a dozen, sometimes a dozen drafts, each one inching its way towards a legible story. I assure her that while it’s not unheard off for a novel to emerge fait accompli, it’s not the norm.
It was that reading at Cadboro Bay Books that got me thinking about process stories. How does it happen for Cathy Ace? I ask.
“It’s very much about focus,” says Cathy. She has a delectable Welsh accent. “I’ve always written for a living – advertising, PR, training courses and text books, business reports. I’ve always had a lot of things simmering. I focus on one to bring it to a boil and get it to a deadline. I take a business-like approach.”
Cathy explains that writing murder-mysteries is now her business. “It’s not a hobby. I’ve made a decision to stop my other work and this is now my business. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it; it’s a dream opportunity. But I have to look at it in a business-like way. If I don’t, I’ll end up just working in the garden all day. Writing is my main priority.”
I ask where that determination comes from. “It’s a Welsh, protestant work ethic.” Cathy explains that she hails from generations of people who just scraped by. She was the first person in her family to go to University, and she knew it. She worked 3 jobs to get through school. “There were no gap years,” she explains, referring to the modern phenomenon of taking a year off from University. She laughs: “Which is another way of saying you have your thumb up your ass. You find yourself through work. Not backpacking to Bali.”
Cathy tells me she read one of my blog posts where I confessed that about halfway through a recent draft of The Glacier Gallows I reluctantly had to create a detailed chart of all the characters to keep them all straight. Cathy says she creates a detailed list of characters before she starts writing. “I’ve got all my notes: names, parent’s names, how they grew up, how they dress, their features: height, weight, hair and eye colour. They are real people. It’s all written down before I start. I refer to it constantly while I write to make sure I don’t mix up a hair colour or which side they limp on. To me the places are all real too, even if I invented them. The story is all fully developed and real before I start. I’ve sat and watched the movie a couple of times. When I sit down to create a draft all I have to do is write it down.”
I ask about the movie reel: what does she see?
“It’s exactly the same as when I watch a movie, except that I can go backwards and forwards. I meet the characters I’ve created along the way. I start with what happened and who committed the murder and how. The rest of the movie is really just creating enough pleasant confusion to keep readers guessing. I want my readers to enter the movie with me. I want to take them on the journey that Cait (her protagonist) is going on. I want the reader to feel the emotions as the characters experience them. I hope they lose themselves enough to enjoy the storytelling.
“I don’t want my readers to feel they are being told a story: I want them to feel like they are experiencing the story.”
Here Cathy and I admit to one another that we haven’t read each other’s books. We both promise to get around to it soon. I ask about what she’s working on now: The Corpse with the Golden Nose. She explains the book is set in Kelowna wine country in BC’s Okanagan. “Someone is dead on the first page. I promise a corpse on the first page of every book.”
Cathy likes the classic style of murder mystery and employs one of its devises – the closed room – in her stories. “It’s an Agatha Christie devise: you reveal the victim while you set up the suspects. I love traditional classic whodunits and those are the stories I like to tell.”
The closed room creates boundaries for the reader: they know that one of these six or ten or twelve people has to be the killer. I tell Cathy that in The Glacier Gallows I’m using a high mountain ridge-line in Glacier National Park, Montana, as my “closed room.”
“The closed room can apply to many situations,” she says. “You can apply a closed circle of opportunity to many different settings. A room, or an environment, or a large geographic region – I like to use the closed circle of opportunity, matched with the very wide-open range of people’s motivation to kill, to create my plot. Sometimes I like to flip that on its ear: no one could have done it, but everybody wanted to.”
“In the Corpse with the Golden Nose, the deceased is ruled a suicide, but Cait believes that, physiologically-speaking, it was a murder. To the reader, the killer is invisible.” Cathy has created a closed environment but a wide open circle of opportunity. “I like to take the traditional rules and push them as far as the reader will allow me,” she says. “I’m writing for the traditional mystery reader. They know the long-established plot twists and turns, and like them. I just use them in a new way.”
So how does this all come together? I want to know how she writes:
“When I’m working on a draft of a novel I aim for about 5,000 words a day. I’m a three or four finger typist and pretty inaccurate. I can’t type an apostrophe; it always comes out as a semi-colon. I hammer away, trying to get the story on paper just as I’m seeing it in my head. I see it as a movie and I try to write that movie onto the page. I’m just there to introduce the things that you need to make a book: all the joining words.
“I do this for about an hour and then I print out what I’ve typed. I take it away to a different part of the house and mark it up: correcting the spelling and grammar. Then I go back to the computer and amend. Then I write the next part. I start at about seven in the morning and finish about five. Throughout the day I’ll do the laundry, play with the dogs, wander around with a cup of coffee. I usually eat lunch at four, when I remember. That’s the way it will go through the week.”
At that rate it takes about a month for Cathy Ace to write a complete novel.
“The story is pretty much set,” she continues. “I know what has to happen by the end of each chapter. Exactly how it happens depends on how the characters choose to act. Sometimes they say things that I didn’t expect them to say in order to present information and do it in character. I’ve met these people in my head, but I haven’t had conversations with them and they haven’t had conversations with Cait.”
Like many authors Cathy talked about her protagonist as if she’s a close chum with whom she has lunch most days of the week. And of course, she is.
Recently I read Stephen King’s book On Writing and explained that King says an interviewer should never ask where “the stories come from.” So I ask.
Cathy says, “The first book came from listening to a radio interview in the 1980’s of someone who said something and I thought ‘What a great way to kill somebody.’ That stayed with me. Now she says that stories all begin with that thought: ‘what a great way to kill somebody.’
I ask if we’re talking about means; you know, the candle stick or the butcher knife?
Cathy says yes, but it might be the method as well.
“I’m always walking around thinking what a great way to kill someone.”
I say “that must make you charming company.”
“Oh, I’m just a delight.”
Having shared a stage with Cathy I can confirm that she is.
While Cathy is writing her second book for TouchWood, she has nine mapped out for the series in total. She tells me that there could be more, but it seemed like plotting nine novels was a good start.
Like many writers, Cathy Ace had to make a conscious decision to invest in her writing: both time and money. She had a successful career in academia and public relations. In 1989 she was stuck in an airport and wrote a short story in response to a competition in a magazine. The story was published, and later anthologized, but at the same time she was starting her marketing communications business, so she decided to let fiction-writing simmer. But like everything else, the time came to put her focus back on her writing.
Two decades passed. In 2007 Cathy was approached by Martin Jarvis and Rosaline Ayres who wanted to produce her short story for BBC Radio 4. She was very proud to hear the story presented on air. She decided that that was the time to stop writing text books and training courses and turn the heat up under her fiction writing.
She sat down and discussed the prospect of writing full time with her husband. Geoffrey has grown children, but leaving her full time career would mean delaying his retirement. The couple decided it was worth the risk for her to pursue fiction. This didn’t happen until this year! Have moved it to right spot
While continuing her academic responsibilities at Simon Fraser University, Cathy wrote a collection of short crime stories and pitched them to publishers. Pitched? “I sent ransom notes to publishers with letters I cut out of magazines,” she says. “The note said that the characters and I were held captive and that the publisher could release them. Everybody wrote back and said that it was not quite their cup of tea. But I kept writing.”
Her break came when she spoke at a writer’s forum in Maple Ridge BC in April of 2009. She met Brian Antonson and he put her in touch with Ruth Linka, the publisher at TouchWood, part of the Heritage Group. Ruth asked Cathy to develop one of the characters from her short stories into a full length novel. In December 2010 Cathy sent Ruth the manuscript for “The Corpse with the Silver Tongue” and on May 11th 2011 Ruth called to say she would publish the book. “I remember the date because it was my late father’s birthday. It was bitter sweet, but sweeter more than bitter.”
She sat down and discussed the prospect of writing full time with her husband. Geoffrey has grown children, but leaving her full time career would mean delaying his retirement. The couple decided it was worth the risk for her to pursue fiction.
Cathy says that going through the story and copy editing process for the first time was completely alien. “I’m sure I was a complete pain in the ass,” she says. “I kept calling and asking what was going on. It was like going into the rabbit hole and just sitting there for ages. But the novel came out relatively unscathed, except for punctuation. I’m sure I was a complete nightmare for the copy editor.”
As both Cathy and I are edited by the same two people, I know exactly what she means.
As our conversation came to a close I asked Cathy what advice she would give someone who was just getting started?
“Make sure you know, before you start, what the story is that you want to tell.”
It’s good advice. The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is available from TouchWood Editions, and can be bought in quality bookstores everywhere, or online. It’s also available at libraries. Watch for the Corpse with the Golden Nose in 2013.
Follow Cathy on Twitter @AceCathy